“Hey, boy genius,” Vanessa Hudgen’s character, Karessa, says, strutting up to her friend. Jon, the artistic prodigy in question responds that he’s about to turn 30, thus her term of endearment will soon wear out. Revered playwright and composer Jonathan Larson died of an aortic aneurysm; on the day his now legendary breakout play “Rent” was scheduled to have its first preview performance. “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda saw “Rent” on stage almost one year, to the day, after Larson passed away. Bringing Larsson’s semi-autobiographical show of the same name to the big screen, “tick, tick… BOOM!”—Miranda’s feature debut as a director—is a full-hearted love letter celebrating the aforementioned boy genius’ impact on musical theatre. Not so surprisingly, it’s a movie made by theatre geeks, for theatre geeks, though feasibly to a severe fault. In other words: if you know the songs and faces on screen, you’re bound to enjoy it infinitely more than a casual movie-goer will.
While Larson’s revolutionary contributions should not be soured, the plot of “tick, tick… BOOM!” is one virtually every creative type has told at one point: their own, and, as a film director, Miranda does very little to translate the self-absorbed material in any sort of cinematic fashion, outside a loosely defined and multi-layered structure. Bookended with (painfully) expository, documentary-like narration, real-life media clips, and faux home video footage, the movie’s wobbly meta-textual barriers never coherently gel together. Framing the story as a one-man rock opera, staged piano performance, and fictional re-enactment (all in one), Miranda’s film is heightened uplift formula with an already publicized tragic ending—a difficult narrative dichotomy to harmoniously pull off—and the movie’s reflexively biographical layers struggle to rectify this due to a separation of presentation and process.
Set in Soho, New York circa 1990, Jon (a mostly very good Andrew Garfield) is still waiting tables at a diner but has a possibly huge work showcase on the horizon. When someone asks the 29-year-old what he does for a living, “I’m the future of musical theatre,” is his answer, and he actually seems to believe it. Pouring his soul into “an original, dystopian rock musical” called “Superbia,” Jon doesn’t have modest goals in the slightest, claiming his current project will be the “first musical for the MTV generation” (amusingly, a sound-bite pitch that must have sounded awesome 30 years ago yet would likely induce groans from most audiences now). With a conceivable make-or-break talent audition just around the corner, Jon panics when two different sources, including Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford, in an armchair eyebrow performance), inform him that his play is missing a seminal song near the end of the second act.
Obsessing over what he now sees as the key to his project coming together, Jon’s relationships with his girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), and long-time buddy Michael (Robin de Jesús) begin to fracture, artistic self-importance overtaking basic camaraderie and compassion. Fearing time is running out because Sondheim was already a success story by his age, Michael and the community surrounding him provide Jon with a much-needed wake-up call when the shadow of HIV creeps into his life.
Though it doesn’t hit the same, soapy tragedy notes as Chris Columbus’ (quite dated) “Rent” adaptation, peppering in Larson’s real-life AIDS/HIV inspiration feels requisitely tacked on, never reading as naturally incorporated into the film save as an occasional finger-wagging device (almost as if the movie is assuming its entire audience is already educated on the subject). More than that, ‘tick, tick’ is effectively the story of a 30-year-old white dude, with a loving partner, going through a privilege crisis. Not much more to it really, if you’re not a theatre kid. Only a couple of scenes really touch on his narcissism and sense of personal nobility, the movie never making him confront his faults in any kind of meaningful manner, the ending sinking further and further into mythological martyrdom.
A humorous focus group scene led by a passive-aggressive company vase only shines a light on these traits. Suggesting sales pitch sentiments to a corporate advertising firm such as “nothing in your way except horizon,” the lyrical nature of Jon’s mind legitimately blows away all those seated around him. A tonal outlier from the rest of the film, existing in a curiously heightened vacuum in which pedestrian non-artist types are played as air-headed bimbos, the scene only reinforces the reminder that we’re being told the story of a man who was constantly praised for what a brilliant prodigy he was. No matter how one feels about Larson’s talent, bits like this don’t add much narrative depth, apart from reinforcing creative infallibility it ultimately romanticizes.
What is perhaps the film’s key dramatic moment—a stark realization of utter selfishness—is so over-directed that Garfield’s crucial reaction reads like a spoiled pout. If you have seen “The Social Network,” in one single close-up, the subtle difference in the directorial skill of a concentrated stylist versus an impassioned theatre kid is clear as night and day—Miranda’s film is extremely over-edited and not a ton of thought seems to have been put into the long take set-ups.
The musical number, “Sunday,” for example, features near non-stop cutting between diner patrons before abruptly pivoting to a wide shot that literally breaks the staging wall, after an entire sequence of curiously claustrophobic medium shots and close-ups—it’s basic, formal construction mildly infuriating.
The “Hamilton” star may be considered by many as the most talented theatre artist of this generation, but he doesn’t seem especially attuned to the camera; and, perhaps more glaringly, its lens. Compared to director Jon M. Chu’s bombastic adaptation of Miranda’s own “In the Heights,” ‘tick, tick’s widescreen canvas looks remarkably flat, the depth of field so feebly disposable that one tracking shot in which confetti pops off feels like it has no texture at all. The DP isn’t the issue, as cinematographer Alice Brooks also shot Chu’s film. Contrasting the Busby Berkley-esque water park sequence from ‘Heights’ against just about any number from ‘tick tick,’ one is easily able to see the compositional chasm. Miranda’s images feel constricted by the screen with stretches over-indebted to Bruno Delbonnel’s soft lighting look for “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the (often artificial?) sun smudging the corner of far too many frames.
Full to the brim with non-stop cameos to previous Larson and Miranda stage productions/film adaptations (one inclusion is particularly cringy, given the abuse stories that have come out about the actress), “tick, tick… BOOM!” will be very enjoyable for die-hard Broadway lovers but feels incredibly hyperbolic as mainstream entertainment. It’s like Gus Van Zant making a Kurt Cobain biopic that ends with a documentary voiceover explaining how important Nirvana was. Jonathan Larson might have been a creative genius who died too young but Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” “tick, tick… BOOM!” is not, though his art may have been as essential as Mozart to Miranda. [C-]